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As CheckPoint grows as a community, we are privileged to have people coming forward and recalling their experiences of how video games and mental health came together.
This article was submitted by Greg Lent.
A Pumpkin In The Toilet- A Story About Autism and Video Games
Growing up with an autistic brother is hard.
I know that sounds petty, given the subject matter, but it’s true. When Akyll was born, I was four and a half years old. I remember thinking, as a very young child, how great it would be to have a brother to do things with. We would be like the siblings in TV shows and books: getting into trouble with each other, staying up late talking, always the best of friends.
Within a few years, however, I had to face that the imaginary relationship I had built up with my brother would never happen. Instead, I quickly had to become a sort of extra parent, helping attend to the needs of an autistic child. This got even worse when my step father died of a brain tumor when I was 12. There were screaming fits, tantrums, and thrown objects. I never felt that I could have friends over because the idea of someone seeing Akyll in a rage brought me a feeling of deep shame. As a kid, I resented my brother.
I always had a difficult time relating to my little brother. One major way we overcame this gap, unexpectedly, was video games.
One of the main symptoms associated with Akyll’s particular brand of autism is deep problems with verbal and reading comprehension. Communication has never been his strong suit. Asking Akyll a question, unless it is done just right, is an exercise in futility, because his default answer is “yes” (which caused a number of problems with authority figures over the years. “Are you on drugs?” “Yes,” got the police called to the high school in his sophomore year). Stringing together a basic sentence was difficult for him for many years. Because of this, I always had a difficult time relating to my little brother. One major way we overcame this gap, unexpectedly, was video games.
I think the era of games that Akyll grew up in was ideal for him. We got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas around the time he was 5 or 6 years old. The bright colors, expressive characters, and new levels of immersion found in our first true 3D games brought video gaming into a context that he could understand and love.
Akyll’s favorite game was always Banjo-Kazooie.
The concept of the game is absurd on its face- an anthropomorphic bear runs around with a bright red bird stuffed into his blue backpack, collecting notes and jigsaw pieces in a charming 3D platformer. As characters speak, with text popping up on the screen that Akyll could not read quickly enough, funny psuedo-voices play. Each character’s voice has a unique sound, allowing him to connect to characters emotionally in a way that was normally not possible. Even if he couldn’t read the silly puns and ridiculous story, he could still identify the “gyuh hyuh hyuh” that signified that Banjo was talking in what was clearly supposed to be a thick, dimwitted English accent.
At first, Akyll would watch me play, taking in the nonsense and enjoying existing in that world with me. He would laugh when I died in a particularly silly way, or gasp when I was trapped underwater and running out of air. He also started identifying characters like Mumbo Jumbo, who transforms Banjo into various animal forms, and Bottles, the nearsighted tutorial mole.
He still has that magazine, now tattered and faded after over 15 years of frequent consultation, sitting on his shelf.
I got a strategy guide for the game for Christmas one year, and soon Akyll took to studying it obsessively. Though his reading comprehension was barely existent, he was able to read the maps, look at the pictures, and, slowly, methodically, as though he were an anthropologist studying an ancient manuscript in a long dead language, tease out the secrets of the game. He still has that magazine, now tattered and faded after over 15 years of frequent consultation, sitting on his shelf.
I still remember the moment that Akyll really took to Banjo-Kazooie and video games in general. In the world called Mad Monster Mansion, Mumbo Jumbo is able to transform Banjo into a small, completely defenseless pumpkin. Akyll found the pumpkin funny enough; the model and animations were very silly. It wore a tiny backpack and bounced around with a great little spring sound on every bounce. Part of one particular quest involving this pumpkin sealed itself as my brother’s favorite ever video game moment, probably to this day.
In this quest, there is a sentient toilet who, with a horrible belching growl, informs the player that Gruntilda has flushed a Jiggie (a magical golden jigsaw piece that comprises the main collectible of the game) down him. To retrieve it, the player must return as a pumpkin through a series of difficult platforming segments while being unable to kill any enemies, and finally travel into the toilet. Akyll couldn’t believe it. The sheer taboo of it (he being decidedly not allowed to play in the toilet) was almost too much for him to bear. He laughed and laughed, and for years in the future he would talk about Banjo going in the toilet, the pumpkin going in the toilet.
After that, Akyll started learning to play the game in earnest.
I had let him mess around with the controller before, but he had never really gone after a goal in any meaningful way. Typically, he would wander around and die fairly quickly to marauding monsters. Now, he had a goal: he was going to flush himself down that toilet.
This is not to say that Akyll is not smart or skilled. I still remember one time when we were very young, he probably only 6 or 7, and we were doing a jigsaw puzzle. The rest of the family thought that Akyll wasn’t able to help much, but when our mom dropped a piece on the floor, he picked it up and unerringly placed it in the puzzle where it belonged. Akyll’s puzzle solving mind has always been sharp, but the abstract, narrative-driven tasks in games often escaped him. Accomplishing a goal is one thing, defining a goal quite another.
That all changed with the toilet quest.
As I noted, this quest was very difficult even for me at the time, more than 4 years older than him and with much more gaming experience. The toilet in question is found in an upstairs room of a three story house, with a window that must first be reached and broken in bear form. Then, after breaking the window, the player must travel all the way across the level to Mumbo’s hut and transform into a pumpkin. Then, the pumpkin must take a more circuitous and dangerous route back to the window, as it is not able to jump as high as Banjo. If at any point the player dies after breaking the window, the whole process must be repeated.
However, over the course of a few weeks, Akyll practiced the process and was able to reach the toilet in pumpkin form with a speedrunner-like precision.
While Banjo-Kazooie is far from the hardest game ever, this puzzle in particular was very difficult for the target audience of younger kids. The pumpkin in question is completely unable to engage in combat, so it is necessary to run through an enemy infested hedge maze while dodging blows in order to make it back to the toilet. It is also a complex process; forgetting to break the window before transforming, as Akyll did in his earlier attempts, means the whole quest is botched and may as well be started over. There are many different windows as well, all unmarked from the outside, so even finding the correct window can be a hassle at first. However, over the course of a few weeks, Akyll practiced the process and was able to reach the toilet in pumpkin form with a speedrunner-like precision.
The remarkable thing about Akyll’s interaction with the game, though, was how it enabled him to communicate ideas. When he made it to the toilet room, he would call me over and enact silly stories in which Banjo would jump around in the toilet, then yell “NO, BANJO, WASH YOUR HANDS!” and make the character splash around in the sink. It was genuinely hilarious in a way that is difficult to accomplish with limited language skills. It felt like one of the only times I was really able to see what was going on inside his head.
After that, he would continue to weave elaborate narratives about the Banjo-Kazooie universe. He’d tell stories about Mumbo joining Banjo in the toilet, or Gruntilda escaping from the rock she’s trapped under after the final battle. He even started comparing real life people to characters in the game, calling me Banjo, our little sister Kazooie, our mom Mumbo. These seem like little things, but the degree to which the game’s narrative acted as a framework for him to communicate with people is impossible to understate. Banjo-Kazooie played a big part in coaxing Akyll out of his shell.
Even today, Akyll loves to play video games.
He still plays classic games on a Nintendo 64 I got on eBay for his birthday a few years ago, after our old one finally stopped working. At this point he has plumbed all the secrets from that old strategy guide, coming apart at the binding and covered in tape after years of use, though he keeps it on hand for reference and nostalgia. He has beaten Banjo-Kazooie to 100% completion many times, more as a comforting routine than a credible challenge. To this day, jumping in that toilet still elicits a gleeful chuckle from him.